Eryn Wise protested at Standing Rock reservat in North Dakota against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The pipeline was planned to be built directly under the Missouri River, the only water supply of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. Following the motto »Water is life, Mni wiconi«, the protest movement grew to the biggest environmental protest in the history of the US within just a few weeks. The local government reacted to the peaceful protests with water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets. That’s what brought the case international attention, solidarity rallies and the support of countless NGOs and US war veterans on sight. In december of 2016, the activists recorded a temporary victory by stopping the construction works. Under president Trump, a former shareholder of the operating company Energy Transfer Partners, the construction was resumed, the pipeline was finished in 2017.
Today, Wise fights against the construction of the new Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota and is the head of the international indigenous youth council. We talked about the start of the protest movement, the situation of indigenous people in the USA and her hope for future generations.
How did the movement against the Dakota pipeline start in general and how for you?
The dakota access pipeline was led by a group of youth who had met President Obama in 2014 when he had visited the reservation and they felt deeply moved because he had told them “I love you” and “I think of you as my own children, I’m going to protect you”. Even though the project was on the table for 2 years already. When they found out, they went all the way to Washington. And when Obama didn’t meet them there, they went all the way back and talked to their elders. They asked how they should proceed. The elder women said that they have some land and they could make an occupation of the land. I don’t think that the 10 of them ever thought that this would turn into a multimillion movement. People from around the globe got involved.
For me: I had read articles about this youth who were running. My brother and sister had graduated from high school and weren’t doing anything and their mother called me and asked me to say something that would prompt them into the next phase of their life. I shared the article with them and the next morning their mom called me and said that they have gotten into the car with all their things and were on the way to North Dakota. Our grandma told us when we were kids that when you want to know how much the US government hated indigenous people, you had to go to the Dakotas. So I felt very strongly that I had to go protect them from this thing that they a…
When I got there they had all this wonderful people with them. And they said: This is my big sister and she has the wallet and a car and I unwillingly became the mother for 30 youths immediately for my six months stay.
Where are you from originally?
From new Mexico, about 24 hours away from New Mexico.
Why did you decide to go there?
I think every indigenous people felt the will to go there as you coul. For once in a life you saw what it would look like if they would have left us alone. For all of us it was really a healing moment that it had taken away from us but that it’s possible that it could happen again.
You became an activist as a safeguard for the younger?
No, it started way younger. Every indigenous person is born with the knowledge that we are responsible for the next 7 generations. The decisions that they make impact all those who come behind us. So the responsibility to care for our land and for everyone who cannot speak for themselves. Our relatives, our animal relatives, the water has its own spirit, the air has its own spirit. And for people who so much disregard the beauty that is in every living thing really broke our heart. And for our youths knowing that their futures would being denied to them by people who didn’t care if they would live or die was really cumbersome and they decided to lift the burden.
Which methods did you use to stop the pipeline?
There was a lot of ceremony. We were always in peace and prayer. Everything that we did, there was singing, non-violent direct action. People who were locking down to the equipment trying to prevent construction. People who were putting their bodies on the line, trying to make it more difficult to construct. Because where they constructed was over and through the graves of several hundred ancestors. We told them that the bodies where there. They disregarded us and them went through anyway. It’s already horrible enough to know that your mother earth is desecrated in such a way. But seeing that on top of seeing the greed earth and the bones of your ancestors. This told us to do whatever is necessary but we have been told in the ceremony that we would not be successful and if we remain in peace in prayers.
What did the corresponding police brutality do to you emotionally?
I think that was really fucked up, I don’t know how to put it any other way. And it’s not even post traumatic, these oil companies are still attacking us. They arrested almost 900 people. They are not even halfway through the trials. They still have a friend, a sister of us in jail, she’s a prisoner of war and she’s been in jail since December 2016. You know that though you are not in Standing Rock anymore, the local communities are still abusing indigenous youth for being indigenous, even if they haven’t been involved in the camps. The amount of terror that the non native communities spread among indigenous people is awful. We are now 2 years away from the camp being set up and nothing has changed in north or south dakota. It’s only gotten worse. You feel a horrible responsible for having been so bold and ambitious to trying to stop a pipeline to protect water for 16 million. You carry the burden of knowing what the home? community is feeling and you also carry the burden of knowing that no matter how hard we fight that we are still less than nothing, that we are still 0,1% of the population in a country that was ours. Everyone else has a place to go. We don’t have anywhere to go. I think it’s even more dramatic to see that no matter what happens everyone else has the ability to leave and you just have to stay because everything that your ancestor resisted is the reason for your existence and you have to buckle down. We are all horribly sad. I can’t see no fireworks no more. I don’t feel safe in public spaces. I am only one person, I took care of the youth. I can imagine what the more popular faces at the core are facing when I see what I’m facing today.
What were the consequences? I heard of a 2 billion lawsuit…
They didn’t file the 2B lawsuit against the NGOs and organisations that were supporting us. My theory is that they wanted to scare the NGOs to help and support us again. At any given time we had more than 10.000 people in the camp.
How did it feel to get Trump elected?
On the day Trump was elected, we didn’t have any signal at the camp, so we didn’t believe it when we heard it. It took several hours for us to finally believe that trump had been elected. When he got into office the first executive order he signed was to open the KXL pipeline again and to approve the dakota access pipeline. His very first executive orders were just a slap in the face, saying: how dare you even try? But I think it emboldened communities, especially communities of colour to reclaim the power. To say: You’ve taken everything from us, even your ancestors cared so less about people besides yourself that you think you deserve anything. And you do not. So I think we have the right to exist and the right to thrive. And just because some overinflated, egoistical, narcisticall, womanising, machoistic bastard says we can’t doesn’t mean we can’t, because we can and we have done.
What did the Standing Rock movement do to the youth?
A lot of the people that came to the encountments brought all their skills with them, skill that the kids haven’t seen before. We had medics who were doing acupuncture and massage therapy, not just street therapies. We had carpenters and builders and engineers who built stuff, people who built solar energy. They would bring solar energy to the camps. The kids they were saturated with these great minds. When we left Standing rock, they were heartbroken, but then they started thinking ok, where are we gonna go next? My little sister is starting to put together solar panels, others are fighting Fracking in new Mexico. I went to Minnesota to fight Line 3. Others went down to Louisiana to find the end of the Dakota access pipeline. There have been more resistance camps since standing rock than there have ever been. And the kids recognise that it doesn’t only have to be frontline work they are doing. They wanna be journalists, photographers, media makers. Any field that they saw were valuable for the movement. They now wanna be a part of it. Because they realise that every person is a part of the puzzle and they see that the only way we can all fit together is if we all work together. So I think that they are brilliant. And I’m so proud of them, that they are overcoming all the fear that was prevued upon them by the police, by the local law enforcement, by the private security. Everything that they were told they can’t do they are now doing.
Why do you think standing rock became the greatest indigenous protest movement in history?
I think that through many many years, especially with repercussions of boarding schools, people were too scared to be themselves. It was horrible to say that you are native, because if you said so. There are still signs in North and South Dakota that say “No dogs and natives”. They would prefer dogs before they would prefer native people. And for once in our lives to be able to say: You know what, there is nothing wrong with us, there has never been anything wrong with us. And we are beautiful and we have so much to offer this world. And we have been offering it. This country wouldn’t even exist hadn’t we fed and housed and clothed these people. For all of us to remember that and then have people see us in our true form, not this scared cartooned charactered versions of ourselves, to not see us as the cowboys and Indians from the Hollywood westerns. But to see us as doctors, as educators, as philanthropists, movement makers. I think was really empowering. I think The reason we all came together was because people finally saw who we were and recognised “oh sorry we weben living on your land without permission. You are actually really lovely and we would love to get to know you. And because we are kind we said that’s great, because we love all of our relatives please come join us. And when people did, there is something beautiful of being part of something that you haven’t been part before. I think the reason that it became so big is that people realized that something was happening that they had never seen in their lifetime. And I hope that we continue this. I don’t want this anymore. It is the only model in my life where I remember what it is like to be an indigenous person without any boundaries. I never want to forget the feeling that I had or have the youth forget what it felt to be their own leaders in their own right to not be questioned, to be embolden and empowered to do more.
What’s your mission statement?
To overthrow the United States government (laughs). Well partly. My mission is just to ensure a future for the youth and I know that it sounds silly but people underestimate young people. Young children – people talk down to them like they can’t understand. But I think children are so much smarter than we are as they are not impacted by all these biases that we carry around. And I think that it is my mission that the kids remember that they have a voice and a path. Our ancestors resistance is the very reason for us existing. And I want them to remember that there are people that have suffered way harder than we have for our ability to stand up for the next 7 generations. And if it got easier at that point of time, it will even get easier in the future. So my mission is to overthrow the US government and make sure that the youth are the ones making the decisions from here on now.
Do you think that grassroots movements can lead to systemic change?
Absolutely! Because governments didn’t always exist. Governments fear among, they elbowed their way in, but they didn’t always exist and they are not stable. Grassroots are communities of people that are working towards a common goal. And a movement used to stay in a movement. Not just with the same people for years and years, but by bringing in new generations of people to carry the message on. So I think grassroots are the heartbeat and governments and politics are just the clothes that you put over the body. They are not the life itself.
How do you feel then if you loose at standing rock, if you lose the battle against state authorities and the projects are still being built?
It was hard. But pipelines can be dismantled. We had a group of people that went and turned off the pipes. Right now we have people that are now in jail, because they decided to turn off the pipes. We didn’t stop the Dakota access pipeline, but we sure woke up the entire world. And made them start talking about extracting industries. Make them start looking through lenses that they have never looked through before. And make them accountable for everything that they have been part of, all their privileges that they carry and make them acknowledge their role and why it is that we as indigenous peoples are fighting for what is right. And I think that I am not sad because everywhere I look everyday there is a new form of resistance and more than half of the time it is led by the youth. I couldn’t be more proud to know that the kids that I worked with that kids that I cried with and prayed with every single day are doing something that is impacting youth around the globe in such a way that they are starting their own movements and leading the people in a brighter direction.
What’s your advice for future activists?
I’d say be open for new learning opportunities and be open for teaching and learning opportunities. You will never know everything. When you’re entrained into a community I would say get in touch with the people or build around the community that has already existed and don’t build around existing communities. I would also say for young activists to be vary and to think very much about safety culture and the necessity of being cautious. I think so often we ware open and welcoming. In activism you can’t really afford to be so warm and friendly. You wanna build community but you also protect yourself and the people. The best way to do that is to have a decreeing eye and an open heart.
What is your next project?
I’m moving back to the southwest. Trump recently reduced a national sacred monument to about 1/8 of the original size, he wants to open up everything for Fracking. So it is my goal to go and preserve my own people now to if I ever have kids in this horrible world that they a have a place to go. And I can tell them the story of our people. It breaks my heart that Palestinians have to know that their children will never ever see where they came from. They’ll never know what their lands used to look like. I don’t want this to be the case in my home. They’ve already taken so much from us, I refuse to let them take anything more.
What’s your big wish to the world?
I wish that we all remember the humanity and that we treat each others as human beings. We all have that one thing in common and if people stop this directing and segregating of everyone and everything they see and they remember aside from my skin color and aside of my hair we are all made of the same things inside. I would love for people to remember their humanity and to start caring for one another again. I know it’s a fabulous wish, but it’s easier than world peace. It’s easier to treat each other well. Following the saying: Treat each other as you want to be treated.
In your workshop yesterday, you talked about grassroots activism. What topics did you see in Austria?
The guests talked about the 3rd rundway at the airport. And I told them about a leck in a refinery near the pipeline. And they recognised that it can happen here too. So they felt empowered and it also empowered me to see that. It would be great if also in Austria more power would go to the youth. I was telling them: A lot of people will maybe be angry on you now, but if you buy them and your children more time on this planet by your decision, your voice will be heard. The youths have the strongest voice because they don’t have this societal standard that we adults have. So it may not be possible to stop the 3rd runway, but the participants had a whole list of things that shall be changed and they will change it.